Monday, March 14, 2016

How does this question asked of Donald Trump about H-1B visas make sense?

John Dickerson asked this to Donald Trump on Face the Nation yesterday:

TRUMP: At the debate, you talked about H-1B visas. You said: "It's something I, frankly, use, and I shouldn't be allowed to use it." When you have talked about the bankruptcy laws, you talk about how you took advantage of them. When you and I talked about your taxes, you say you try and pay as little as possible. If you are president, why would anybody follow the laws that you put in place if they knew you were taking advantage of those laws when you were in the private sector?
(That's from the transcript. You can see it in the middle of this video, starting at 5:18 — click the slider at the bottom of the video, a little more than half of the way through the interview.)

I asked John Dickerson about this on Facebook (he hasn't responded to me) (UPDATE: see the end of this post for his response):
Trump claims that he followed the laws, and used them to his business advantage; he hasn't said he violated any laws. How is that inconsistent with the assumption that people will "follow the laws that [he] put[s] in place" when he's president? Presumably he'd to try to improve the laws, leading to better results when businesspeople followed them in a way that worked to their advantage (as businesspeople can always be expected to do).
My mom, Ann Althouse, made the same point (and we hadn't discussed this with each other or seen each other's comments when we separately pointed this out):
What's Dickerson trying to say, that taxpayers should pay more than they owe? That businesspersons shouldn't understand the law, see what's to their advantage, and structure their transactions efficiently? Why wouldn't voters trust a businessperson who followed the law and figured out how to use it? Don't we want someone knowledgeable and competent? We're supposed to prefer someone who's so intimidated by law that he wastes money? Is Dickerson a fool or is he just trying to manipulate viewers into thinking ill of Trump?
Here was Trump's response, with an odd interjection from Dickerson:
TRUMP: Because I know the game better than anybody, because I have been on the other side. I have built one of the greatest companies. I did a filing which shows one of the great companies, great assets, very little debt, tremendous cash flow, some of the greatest assets in the world. But let me just tell you, I use the bankruptcy laws just like other very successful people. I don't [want] to use their names, but I could name 10 people right now, the biggest people in all of business. We do it. It's the game we play. We use the laws of the land.

DICKERSON: But why wouldn't people keep playing . . .

TRUMP: We use it. And that's the way we play the game. Wait a minute. As far as the visas are concerned, I'm not doing anything wrong. I think the -- those visas shouldn't be allowed. But they are allowed. They are part of the fabric of what you do. So, I'll use it. I mean, I'm a businessman. Now that I have turned politician -- I hate to say that, almost, about myself -- but now that I'm running for office, I know the game better than anybody. I'm the one that can fix all of this stuff. But when you start talking about -- I never went bankrupt. I never went bankrupt. You understand I never went bankrupt. But you take a look at the business leaders. Every once in a while -- I have 500 companies. I have so many different companies. And a very few, I will take advantage of -- frankly, by using the laws of the land, as every other major businessperson does.
My mom points out that Dickerson's follow-up was "weirdly obtuse":
"But why wouldn't people keep playing?" There's nothing wrong with "playing." The key is to put the right rules and regulations in place and then to enforce them. If you don't like what people are doing when they are following the law, then something's wrong with the law, not with the people who are finding effective ways to compete.

I don't see Trump as fomenting disrespect for the law. It's more the opposite. The law matters. Get it right. People using the law to their selfish advantage may reveal what's wrong with the law, and Trump is offering his services, as an expert player, in seeing and fixing the flaws so that the game produces a result that is in the general interest of the American people. There may be reasons not to trust him (and there are surely reasons to mistrust those who've played the law game from positions in government), but his use of the law isn't a good reason.
My mom notes that she's in the legal field and she found Dickerson's question "very weird." I'm also in the legal field and had the same reaction. If a journalist as prominent as Dickerson, the host of one of the Sunday morning political shows, saw fit to ask this on the air, how much similar confusion about law, policy, and business is out there among the general public?

UPDATE: John Dickerson has responded to my question on Facebook:
Good question. What I was trying to get at is where is he on the question of gaming the laws and abiding by them. Does he think laws exist to be maneuvered around and taken advantage of? In the case of companies like Apple and others he makes a moral objection to their taking advantage of tax and trade laws. But in his own business he says he plays every game he can even when he acknowledges (as he did with H1B visas) that it's a bad thing to do. (He's under investigation both for his use H1B visas and his tax filings) So what I was trying to get at is whether he expects everyone to game the system when he's trying to make the system better or whether he expected a different standard than the one he uses once he's on the other side-- since his view of standards is a moving target. (For example, he campaigns against foreign workers taking jobs but hires them; campaigns against foreign made goods but makes them). So where's' the line? How does he draw it? How will he draw those lines when he's president. He offered a lot of that in his answer. The point is to excavate his reasoning. The reason I asked about his event with Dr. Carson is that it's part of the same inquiry: what guides your behavior? Is politics a system to be gamed? Seems like a lot of people are upset about politics being turned into a game this election cycle. As the candidate who has achieved a special status because voters think he tells unique truths, how can he say something seemingly true one minute and then say oh that wasn't true it was just politics the next minute. There's no law against doing that. He's just playing the game. But I keep hearing that people are tired of the game playing. Also, it seems like a pretty shifting set of standards-- and campaigns are about whether what you're saying will still be true once you're elected. So why, if his standards are shifting now, should people not think he'll shift his standards when he gets into office. Nothing will be there to bind him in many cases but his personal set of standards. Thanks for asking!
As I said in reply to Dickerson on Facebook: He keeps referring to Trump "gaming the laws," "maneuver[ing]," "tak[ing] advantage of" the laws, etc. Those terms might sound vaguely nefarious, but the bottom line is that they all seem to refer to a businessperson following the law. If the consequences of businesspeople following the law are bad, then the law should be changed. So I fail to see a contradiction, or even a tension, between what Trump says about what he's done as a businessperson and his stance that he'd improve the laws and the economy as president. After all, his argument is not that he expects businesses to suddenly act in the country's best interests out of the goodness of their hearts. His argument is that he knows firsthand, from decades of experience, what it's like to do business under a lot of laws and regulations, and he has ideas for improving those laws to get better economic results. That's all under the assumption that people who run successful businesses, who are advised by lawyers and financial advisors, will always work hard to do whatever they think will advantage themselves under the existing law.